India’s challenge in the Sepak Takraw men’s team competition at the ongoing Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang ended at the hands of defending champions Thailand.

The Men’s Team Regu team had created history however, by reaching the semi-finals of the competition. In doing so, the team had won a bronze, the first-ever for the sport in four attempts at the Asian Games.

In what is a sport believed to have originated from Malaysia, India has made rapid strides in the recent past, coinciding with a few international medals coming the country’s way. Curiously, the little-known sport exists in pockets of space across the country where its popularity rivals that of the other sports.

When it started way back in 1982, there was barely any enthusiasm for the sport. Even as recently as 2006, when India debuted in the sport at the Asian Games, the team was forced to forfeit one of its matches due to the absence of sufficient number of players.

The origins of the sport co-incidentally have to do with the Asiad hosted in New Delhi back in 1982, where Sepak Takraw was held as a demonstration sport. “The event was held at the Karnail Singh stadium in New Delhi where it was a huge hit. The prime minister Indira Gandhi was also present as a guest of honour on that occasion,” says Sepak Takraw Federation of India (STFI) secretary Yogendra Singh Dahiya.

The STFI was formed two years later in 1984, run out of a school in Nagpur, with the aim of holding more competitions. Three years later, the first-ever Sepak Takraw nationals were held in Maharashtra.

“Manipur traditionally are the most successful state in this discipline but we are seeing this hegemony breaking down as we see the nation-wide growth of this sport,” says Dahiya.

Indeed, Manipur along with Mizoram, Nagaland and parts of New Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have seen the sport flourish. In Delhi, the ‘Majnu ka Tilla’ area near DU’s North Campus sees a host of players go to the Indira Gandhi Stadium to practice and play the sport.

Manipur’s hegemony breaks

Manipur’s dominance in the national scene has seen them send 14 players across the men’s and women’s teams to the Asian Games, but the SSB or the Armed Border Forces have challenged the North-eastern state’s grip over the sport.

Till date, 27 nationals in the senior category and 22 sub-junior and junior national championships have been held in three decades. But the breakthrough for Sepak Takraw for India came when the Sports Authority of India adopted it in 2000.

The inclusion of the sport at the Manipur National Games in 1999 and every other nationals since, has also helped. The inter-university games also included the discipline as five SAI centres – Delhi, Bareilly, Aizawl, Imphal and Dimapur – now train athletes in the sport.

“At that time, the sport was available in certain schools and if you took an interest in it, you could compete in it,” said coach Hemraj, the head coach of the Indian team since 2009.

The nationals, which had barely four to five states participating at that time now see representation from 25 of STFI’s 29 affiliate units, says Hemraj, who took up the sport in school in 1991, adding the team’s started participating internationally from the 2004 Kings’ Cup, a prestigious competition in Thailand.

A need for jobs

Bronze medals at the Kings’ Cup and the France Cup, two top-tier international tournaments have helped as has increased support from the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (MYAS), which provided financial assistance for camps from 2010 onwards.

In Guangzhou, the men’s team lost a close-run quarter-finals, inches away from a medal and in Incheon, they finished fifth while the women finished eighth. In between the Sepak Takraw World Series was held in India, which saw them take a set off Malaysia for the first time in the semis before losing, but earned a bronze for their efforts.

India also held the once-in-four years World Cup in Telengana, which saw the contingent finish with a bronze in 2017 to add to the silver that the team won at the Asian Sepak Takraw Championships in 2017.

The team that won bronze at the Asian Games had two old-timers in KH Niken and Sandeep Kumar making their third Games appearance but most of the squad is young, explains Dahiya.

“Due to the lack of employment opportunities, I can’t ask my players to forego their careers to continue. One of my promising players is a daily wage labourer in Kohima and I even offered him money to come train, but there is no return,” Dahiya laments.

Only the SSB, Manipur and Andhra Pradesh governments offer jobs to Sepak Takraw players who otherwise have the option of joining as coaches in SAI like Hemraj. Jobs, Dahiya argues, will attract and retain top talent in the sport.

Official recognition from the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) also doesn’t seem to be forthcoming, as STFI is not one of the 48 National Sports Federations (NSFs) under the IOA. For now, teething problems in the sport continue but this bronze should bring some much-deserved cheer to the game once colloquially known as ‘foot-volley’.